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Gladys M. Imlach

Across the Ocean

The little fleet first steered to the south-west. At the end of the third day the Pinta  showed signals of distress, and it was found that the rudder had been improperly secured by the owners, in order that thus the ship might be compelled to put back to Spain. Martin Pinzon, who was a cool-headed man, got a rope put round the rudder, and managed to reach the Canary Islands, where he meant to charter a new vessel and to leave the Pinta. But because Columbus heard that the King of Portugal, in his jealousy of the Spanish power, had sent to seize him and so to put a stop to the expedition, he dared not delay longer than was necessary for repairing the damage, and set off again on the 6th of September.

At first only light winds blew, and the vessels moved slowly over the calm sea, but when they had lost sight of land, the sailors began to be afraid. They looked around and saw everywhere the grey sea meeting the grey sky, and they wept and groaned piteously, calling out that they would never see their country and their friends again. The Admiral was much disturbed and annoyed by their cowardice, but he went among them and comforted them. He talked to them of the wonderful countries of Asia, and of the fame and riches each man would gain by his voyage, until they were all quite gay and cheerful, and busied themselves heartily with their work.

Columbus saw, however, that he would have trouble with them in the future, and that night he began to keep two log-books, a true one for himself, in which he entered the number of miles the ship had really gone every day, and a false one for the men to see, where he set down a much smaller number. For if they thought they had covered only a short distance, they would not be as impatient as if they were daily expecting the end of the voyage; and Columbus knew the way might be longer than any of them supposed. As indeed it was.

He was prudent enough to give orders to the captains of the Niña  and the Pinta  that if they were separated from him by storm or fog, they should sail due west for 2000 miles, and then wait, for there he hoped to find land.

He soon learned that he dared not trust his sailors to steer, for continually they let the ships fall off to the north-east. So he watched over the course of the fleet by night and day. He took charge of the instruments, the quadrant and the compass, and always made the reckoning himself. He kept a journal too, and wrote in it an account of all that happened on the way. And he prepared maps in which to draw the new lands, that all men might see exactly where he had been. It was not surprising then that, anxious and hard-working as he was, he did not rest much during the voyage; indeed, he said himself that he forgot sleep.

About the middle of September the sea was no longer barren of all interest. First a mast went floating by, and dismayed the sailors with thoughts of the lost crew and with forebodings as to their own fate. Then they saw a tern and a boatswain bird, and rejoiced, because these birds do not venture far out on the sea; but on the next day they were alarmed by a great meteor with a trailing wake of fire which fell into the sea before them. And the needle of the compass turned, pointing to the north-west, and they fancied that some evil power must be working to mislead them.

They grumbled, too, saying that it was all very well now for the wind to blow from the east, but if it did not change they could never sail back to Spain. Then they were delighted by an announcement of Pinzon's, whose boat was the lightest and the fastest, that far off he could see a low, long mist which must be land, and just as much disappointed when the supposed land turned out to be a cloud. All this time Columbus bore with them patiently, and their complaints and hopes did not affect his mind, and he still gave the sailing orders: "Westward always."

Then they saw masses of driftweed on which live crabs were floating, and flocks of birds passed overhead, but when they let down a weight to feel for a bottom, the sea was deeper than they could sound. The weeds grew thicker and thicker, until the ships could hardly make any progress, and on all sides they seemed to be surrounded by dry land.

And again the crews murmured, and declared the country was enchanted, and that the ships were caught in the weeds, and would be held fast for ever. The sun shone gloriously, the weather was wonderfully calm and mild, and three small birds perched on the rigging, and sang all day long as if they had been among fields.

At last the wind changed and blew gently from the south-west, and the Admiral was able to say that now at least they could go back whenever they wished.

Soon they left the region of the weeds, and the sailors bathed alongside the ship in the calm sea. But suddenly it rose, and heavy waves tossed the ships about, though there was little wind. This often happens in the middle of the ocean, but even Columbus had not known such a thing occur before, and he could not allay the men's fears. They began to talk openly about the risks they ran, and to mock at their leader.

"Oh yes," they said, "he thinks of nothing but being Viceroy and Admiral; he does not see that he will soon have lost his life and our lives into the bargain. He is a madman. Why should we obey him? There is little enough to eat now, and soon all our provisions will be finished. The ships are leaking too. Nobody in Spain will blame us if we bind him with cords, and tell them that under this mad leader we nearly died. Or, better still, let us throw him into the sea, and say he fell overboard while he was gazing up at the stars in his ridiculous way."

Thus they talked and wailed, but none of them was brave enough to lay his hand on the Admiral, though, if they had known it, Columbus' own heart was heavy, and he wondered how much longer he would be able to make them obey him. After a time, however, he went to them and called them his comrades, and speaking with great coolness and sweetness, reminded them that if they returned to Spain without him, their punishment would be death. And he spoke to them of the birds they had seen, which must have flown from some land near by. They were quieted for a little, but there were many weary days to pass yet.

One day at the end of September, Martin Pinzon signalled again from the Pinta  that land was in sight on the south-west. The crews fell on their knees and thanked God. And Columbus, who hoped that he was now near Japan, climbed up the mast and watched anxiously, as the prows of the ships were turned towards it. But only a cloud was there, and despair followed their excitement.

On the 1st of October, by Columbus' own reckoning, they had crossed 2100 miles of sea, and still they were surrounded by the waves. The water was full of fish, particularly of flying fish, which leapt in and out, and flocks of birds passed overhead, but there was nothing else to interest the voyagers. A sum of money had been promised to him who first saw land, and all day long the excited men were persuading themselves that this or that cloud was some island, and startling the whole ship with their shouts. To put an end to these useless alarms, the Admiral at last declared that if any man again made a mistake, he should not have the reward, even though he were fortunate in the end. This, of course, made them all very careful.

However, on the 7th of October, the sound of a gun was heard from the Niña, and a flag was run up to her mast. This was the signal all had been waiting for, and the men pressed eagerly on deck. But it turned out to be the cruellest disappointment of all, and nearly ended Columbus' voyage. For when on the next day the fancied land had disappeared, the sailors on the Santa Maria  rose up in a body and went to him, and said that they would not go farther with him, and that unless he would change the ships' course for Spain, they would find a new captain of their own to take them back. As always, he stood boldly up before them, and asked them how they dared approach him thus, saying firmly: "I will not turn back till with the help of God I find that land."

But though the men cringed before him like frightened dogs, and shuffled their feet, they were more afraid of the strange seas than they were of their Admiral, and, when he ordered them to go to their work, they remained sullenly crouching against the bulwarks, like wild, despairing animals. He saw that this time he could not master them, and for a moment his heart failed within him.


Columbus addressing the mutineers.

This then was to be the end of all; he had planned and worked and prayed, and given up his whole life just for a dream. And yet even now he was sure that land must be near. At last he raised his head and said very quietly, without a trace of the struggle in his mind: "Give me, my men, but three days." The men assented silently and moved away, and they worked and waited for the third day when they might turn homewards. For they had ceased to care about any fame or riches they might gain, and grudged every hour's sail to the west.

Two whole days went by, and Columbus' hopes fell lower. But on Thursday, the 11th of October, the sailors picked up a thorn-branch with fresh red berries on it, which must have been newly broken off. They found too some river weed, and a small cane cut by a man's hand. They were all excited by these discoveries, especially as Columbus had added a velvet doublet to the promised reward; and that night no man went to sleep, while the Admiral himself watched from the high poop of his vessel.

At ten o'clock, Columbus fancied he saw a light, but it disappeared before he could be sure. It seemed to reappear again, and he called to one of his officers, who saw it distinctly. As they watched, they saw that it moved a little and sometimes was hidden altogether, as though some person were carrying a torch among trees. But it was very faint, and when the crew were told of it, some of them could not distinguish it at all, and others were not certain that the glimmer must be a fire of man's making.

At last, at two o'clock, the Pinta  discharged a gun and sent a boat to the Santa Maria  to report that Roderigo de Triana, a man noted for his keen eyesight, had seen the outline of an island looming through the darkness. A few minutes later, as it grew lighter, Columbus himself saw the land about six miles away. The three ships stopped in their course and waited for morning, while the men sang, and leapt, or even wept, and praised God Who had brought them safely through their perilous voyage.